The Other Currency in Theatre Economics
The Other Currency in Theatre Economics
When I write a new play, I’ll usually gather a group of friends together, give them wine and snacks and we’ll read it. It’s a great way for me to hear what’s on the page and for us all to see one another. Every time, someone says, “We should do this more often.”
Because a large portion of my network has largely left town to go raise their kids or whatever, I am always trying to add new people. Those people will go on to be the people I recommend when asked for actors. They’ll become the people I ask to join me if/when I get stuck into a bigger project. Fundamentally, it’s a way to get to know one another in a low stakes, pleasant, creative atmosphere — which is, of course, the way I like to work. It’s not a financial transaction. I make it clear I can’t pay anyone and people self select for the experience.
I am not alone in this sort of methodology. Almost no writer has the resources on their own to fund a paid developmental reading in a living room. And even if they could, there are reasons not to. Those reasons have to do with the alternate currency that flows alongside money in the making of theatre — and possibly in the other arts as well. The alternate currency is essentially Good Will and it is just as easily lost and gained as money. It’s not explicit but it can make all the difference in the world between getting a gig and not.
I started to think about this when I invited an actor to join me for one of these living room readings. They said they were interested but that they could no longer do things for free and would need some sort of payment. This message made me feel bad. It also means that I will never approach that actor again — first, because they made me feel bad and second, because they clearly do not understand a fundamental truth about the theatre business.
Now, let me pause to say that I am a fierce advocate for artists getting paid. I am sympathetic to the need for money and a desire to be paid for your work. I understand that there are a lot of people out there trying to avoid doing the right thing and I know that sometimes folks have to agitate to be valued. The need for money prevents artists from being able to do their work and if their art is not paying them, then they lose double. But I actually do fight to pay artists on every rehearsed project I do. I am transparent about what is possible, that I will fight to pay them and then I do. That’s just policy. It’s important. I do try like hell to put my fundraising money where my mouth is.
But — that said — a thing like a living room reading is not really part of that stream of economics. A living room reading is for social currency. It’s for building good will. Instead of running auditions, we can get to know one another in a creative context and relaxed social setting. The actors have done me a favor by showing up and reading the words I wrote down and I will return it the next time someone asks me if I know any actors who are a real pleasure to work with.
Conversely, if someone asked me if I knew the actor I invited who asked to be paid when I’ve explicitly said there was no money, I’d tell them that story since that’s all I know.
The sad thing about this is how this talented actor will never know this. As my friend said, they “probably read one of those books or listened to one of those entrepreneur gurus who told them to VALUE THEMSELVES and NEVER WORK FOR FREE and now they’re making their stand at a living room soiree read, where are all they’re doing is shooting themselves in the foot. Nobody pays for these things. No one. Tony winning actors read my stuff for free all the time. Only the novices don’t know that the building up of these experiences is how you actually have a career.”
I’m not sure I knew this back when I was acting. I very possibly could have made similarly self-defeating stands back in the day. Maybe I lost gigs because I didn’t understand what things were social currency and what were for literal currency. I wish someone had explained it to me. I wish someone had explained it to this actor. Actors get caught up in the world of agents and casting directors and can end up worrying only about who can get them an agent. They don’t realize that agents and casting directors can’t give them a job. Writers and directors give actors jobs. Agents exist to introduce you to writers and directors who are putting on shows.
Would you rather spend two minutes in front of a director whose eyes are getting blurry after seeing two hundred actors at an audition or three hours with them, doing a whole play and chatting over wine? I know which one I’d choose.
Is it all gold? No, of course not. You might have to turn up at 100 crappy readings before you find good work or people who you hope to work with in the future. But today’s writer of a crappy play, might be tomorrow’s writer of a hit play or TV series or whatever. You don’t know.
The not knowing is why the social currency is not as simple as the economic currency. It’s not transactional. It’s not quid pro quo. It’s not like, “You read a play for me, I recommend something for you.” And it’s not even like putting money in a special currency bank. It’s more like growing a garden of wildflowers than anything. You have to scatter the seeds in a wide variety of places in a wide variety of conditions to allow for the possibility of some growth. You don’t know what kind of seeds they are or what they need to grow, you don’t know if they need wet or dry soil — so you just need to scatter those seeds far and wide. Showing up at things like readings are a way to scatter those seeds. A guy who read a play in my living room a few years ago just had his face on the side of a giant building on 42nd Street for his hit TV show. Those things have nothing to do with one another, really, aside from the fact that I know how widely that actor scattered those wildflower seeds.
Life in the theatre may seem short and transient but if you’re lucky, it’s long and full of unexpected connections. The relationships you nurture now may have surprising results later in life. There are many people I never would have thought would find success but did (and vice versa, of course). The more you care for and develop relationships now, the more likely those people will be to go out on a limb for you or fight to have you be part of their payday gig. This is why you don’t fight for $25 from writers and directors now — so that they’ll fight to have you for much more than $25 in the future. You want your voice to be in a writer’s head, you want your cadence to be the cadence a director imagines when she envisions the show on Broadway or wherever. The writer and the director are the people who could, in the future, give you a job. People pay agents and casting directors to audition in front of them but those people cannot hire you. They can only put you in front of a writer or director who can hire you. Why not skip the middle man, read a play, drink some wine and show up as a hero for someone who might get you a gig in the future. You might not end up with your picture on the side of a building, but you’ll hopefully have a good time and meet some nice people.
That’s the best thing about theatre, really. If you’re missing the social currency, you’re focused on the wrong currency. Even the most successful writer who’s auditioning actors for their hit show still wants people who like them or their show enough to want to do it for free. At that point, of course, no one’s doing it for free anymore but beginning with social currency is always a good idea, even in the paying world. Have snacks with writers. Have wine with directors. Just go.
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on February 4, 2020.